Pets & Divorce

We have all heard the jokes: when the lockdown is over couples will either be shopping for baby clothes or divorce lawyers.

In the inevitable wave of couples separating once the world, slowly, moves to some sort of new normal, my thoughts go to people’s pets during divorce. How will the couple decide who the dogs or cats (or parrots or bearded dragons…) are going to live with? 

From a purely legal point of view, your pets are property. They are in the same category as a couch, TV, or car, something that you own. This means whoever paid for the pet is technically the owner, and many lawyers use that point when arguing over custody. Let’s say,
for example, if you got a kitten years ago when you moved in with your then fiancé, your now ex could wind up with custody of ‘your’ cat based on the fact that he or she paid for it.

 I’ve experienced firsthand the effect on dogs and cats when a custody decision was made based on someone winning the fight, not one what was actually in the best interest of the animals themselves. Pets show their stress by changing their behavior. Suddenly becoming destructive, noisy, having a change in toilet habits, running away, acting aggressive, withdrawn or fearful. 

My work as pet custody consultant grew organically from twenty-five years’ experience as an animal behaviorist and dog trainer. I have worked with people and pets in almost every situation you can imagine, from the delightful to traumatic. Everything from rehabilitating
dogs who have killed other dogs, to training animals to act in films, to teaching owners how to raise wonderful dogs teaching puppy school.

It can be really difficult to separate our own emotions from our dogs; we assume they are feeling the same as we are. Many of the dogs I have worked with started to chew up the household furniture, not because they were upset and devastated that the father moved out, but because they were no longer going for daily morning runs in the
park with dad, and having no outlet to burn off their energy they took to chewing on things. Being left home alone and bored has created a chewing habit for many active dogs.

Divorce is not always dreadful like some of the stories you have heard, but the question of “who keeps the dog?” doesn’t necessarily have a straightforward answer. At emotional crossroads, how to do we walk the tricky tightrope of separating our wants from what is truly the best  long-term situation for the pets? It is crucial to look at life from your animal’s point of view, to set aside your desired outcome and look at your situation as objectively as possible.

 Every household is unique, and so is every divorce; I can’t give you a set rule book as to how to make this decision about your pets and your family, but here are some things to take into consideration:

Given your dog’s age and breed, how much daily exercise does he/she need? Especially for active dogs, having the right mental and physical stimulation is crucial to their wellbeing. Who will have the time and inclination to exercise the dog? Having a larger yard is not necessarily the answer. Better to live in a small house and be active with your owner everyday than left alone in a large property with nothing to do. One person saying they will keep the dog and ‘I will take up running’ is a red flag for me – there are always exceptions, but in my experience, whoever was exercising the dog all along is more likely to continue than it is for the other person to start.

Let’s say a mother is getting primary custody of the children, will she, as a newly ‘single mom’, realistically have time to take care of the dog? Has walking the dog every day been part of her normal routine? Or would this be a new responsibility she is prepared to take on so as to keep the dog living with the children? There is an automatic assumption you should keep the dog with the kids, which is totally understandable. If a child is saying ‘goodbye’ to living with both parents, how could you also take the dog away? However, will she actually have time? It’s a hard question to ask, but a necessary one.

Shared custody is becoming a trend for dog owners who are divorcing. For the two people involved, this may be a fair compromise, but for many dogs this creates a life of feeling unsettled, of constant goodbyes and reunions. If you decide to opt for shared custody, but each handoff is full of tension and emotion, is that really fair on your dog? Dogs won’t handle life very well living with stressed owners who are constantly apologizing to them, acting angry or feeling guilty. If, one the other hand, you and your ex genuinely get along, and your dog has a delightful, robust character, one who goes with the flow and loves whoever happens to be in front of him, moving between two houses can be an easy lifestyle.

 The sort of personality a dog has depends on many factors; how they were raised, breed, age and general history. Some dogs bond very strongly with one particular person and being separated and reunited with that individual regularly can be cruel. This can happen often with rescue dogs who had a shaky upbringing or can also be breed specific; certain working dogs have it in their genetic code to be intensely loyal to one individual person. 

For example, we have four dogs in our house, all busy, active dogs who come to my training classes and who regularly travel with me to agility competitions. Sam, our Blue Heeler, is an awesome dog. He loves doing dog sports with me. Every morning he hops in my car to go hang out at training school, and there are times I literally can’t work without him. He is my priceless and essential assistant when I work with fearful aggressive dogs. He is so calmly confident that, even when faced with a traumatized dog who appears scary and aggressive, Sam will manage to settle down and make friends with him. However, despite all the time we spend together, he has been unquestionably my husband’s dog since the day came home at eight weeks old. I have spent many hours training Sam; if I tell him to ‘stay’ you can throw a steak in front of him and he won’t move unless I say so, but one whistle from his dad and he will run away from me without a second thought. His bond, his guiding light in this world is his dad, and no amount of training with me will change that. 

And finally… do you really want the pet? Is living with you the very best option? Or do you want to punish your ex-partner? This question is really difficult, and one many people are too uncomfortable to ask, even of themselves. Maybe there was an affair, maybe there was a financial betrayal, or maybe you are just so angry that things ended up this way that fighting over the furkids has become a way to get back at your ex. Not everyone has the self- awareness to acknowledge, “I am using the pet’s custody as a weapon.”, but it happens, all too often. The fight gets justified in our minds in countless ways.

My advice to anyone getting a divorce is, for the sake of your animals, please pause and ask yourself, quietly, what is truly the right custody choice? Not for you, not for your ex, but for your pets.